Tuesday 16 December 2014

Day 180: Dolpo day 11 - Tracking the Snow Leopard

Where's the snow leopard then?
There were no miles for free today; from the time we laid our first boot print we had to climb persistently upwards to a high camp preceding our final 5,000m pass.  But there were distractions from the strain without resorting to hobbit names.  On the path, we found cat-like footprints; could these belong to the endangered albino leopard that we so wanted to see?

"Have you seen snow leopards here?" we asked a passing yak herd.  "Yes, twice recently," he told us.  He pointed to the hills ahead of us.  "It's up there."  We looked down at the tracks again.  One adult and two young creatures - could they be snow leopards? - had definitely preceded us up this very footpath in the last few days.

A pair of footprints with my 3 inch lens cap for scale
The next excitement was the discovery of cat scat, the most distinctive snow leopard sign we had seen yet.  The footprints could perhaps belong to another creature, but which animal in these parts leaves scat like a leopard?  Definitely not a donkey or a horse.  Not a yak.  Not a sheep.  Not a goat.  This must be the trail of the snow leopard.

We only looked up from the markings in the dust when they were overrun by a sea of four-legged woollen bodies.  We were passing a herders' camp and stopped to watch women milk the naks (female yaks) and Catherine-wheel a tape to herd their goats.  But little else distracted us from our new-found obsession with footprints.  It was so absorbing that we did not reach camp until mid-afternoon, but we had still not caught a glimpse of amber eyes or whitish fur prowling the hillside.

Cat scat?
Nonetheless, we were feeling elated at dinner that night.  The food was plentiful, the after-dinner mug of tea warming, the moon full shone above us.  We were chatting and joking.  Tomorrow we would cross the final pass and descend at last to Juphal.  Perhaps we would have one last chance to spot a snow leopard on the hillside.

Then the thread of conversation snapped.  We heard a loud distinctive howl.  It was the sound of folk stories and childhood nightmares, of Little Red Riding Hood and 'What's the time, Mr Wolf?'.  And now the answer was for real: 'dinner time'.  A pack of wolves roamed above us in the mountains.

We could do nothing but zip up our tents and hope a night time visit to the toilet tent would not be needed.  At half midnight Guy heard howling around the camp and called out to the expedition leader, Tony.  But we could only hunker down in our sleeping bags, keeping warm and hoping that wolves considered donkey tastier than human.  A few hours later we heard yapping in the camp.  A dog or a wolf?  But we had not seen any dogs anywhere in Upper Dolpo; Krishna thought there was not enough meat in the villages to feed them.  Perhaps the wolves were in the camp itself?  We tried to block out the thought.

When morning dawned, nine donkeys remained in camp (the number we had set out with), sixteen humans (also the correct number), and Sheeti.  The wolves must have found a tasty baby yak steak, or perhaps a succulent leg of goat, elsewhere.  Overgrown monkey wrapped in polyester wasn't on their evening's menu (perhaps raw primate doesn't cut it for a full moon feast?).

The sun was now shining and pots and pans clanked as Dilli prepared breakfast.  Suddenly, it was hard to feel scared of wolves howling in the moonlight.

How to keep your feet dry
Wolf food 
Dolbadu assists with milking
This guy seems happy?

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